How do French people eat?
July 12, 2016 12:54 PM   Subscribe

There's a lot of writing on the internet about French eating habits and how refined (and superior) they are, but I'm curious how these habits play out in less refined circumstances.

A lot of the American fascination with French eating habits relates to how the French stay thin, but also that they seem to have a more "reverent" attitude toward food and eating. Most of what I've read seems to boil down to availability of fresh produce, eating smaller, balanced meals of several courses, eating a large lunch and a smaller dinner, lots of yogurt, and lots of carbs and dairy but in moderation (and smaller quantities than Americans are used to), plus either enough money to dine in a cafe every day (for lunch), or going home for lunch, and an available adult who prepares most meals from scratch.

I also know that the French tend to have more time in their day due to a more limited work week. What I'm curious about, though, is how people in more difficult circumstances handle eating in France, for instance:

1) Working class people-- do they tend to have these same habits? Do they dine out often? Are two working parents the norm? Do they spend as much time on food prep and eating as other social classes?

2) Graduate students-- in the US, we're typically very busy and working all hours, coordinating with groups overseas, etc. Often single, though not always. How do graduate student (particularly single ones) eat? Do they cook often? Are undergraduate students more self-sufficient, food wise, than those in the US?

3) There are probably other classes who in America have a dysfunctional or (of necessity) complicated relationship with food, and if these are the same or different in an interesting way in France, that would be worthwhile to know as well.

I know there are a lot of factors at play, like a growing availability of convenience foods, better social support for the working class, etc, which are highly relevant, which is why I'm asking this question, as I know very little about French society.
posted by stoneandstar to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Here is something I've learned from my French friends, who are mostly middle-class graduate students from Paris: a lot of foods that I think of as fancy don't seem fancy to them. For instance, for them pâté comes in many different shapes and sizes (some of them chunkier than others) and it's just a normal thing to spread on bread; cheeses that would be considered "stinky" in my hometown are just everyday cheeses that you buy in the local supermarket; fresh bread isn't a luxury, it's just something you go out and buy every day.
posted by colfax at 1:36 PM on July 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I quibble with the statement that French people are all thin. Perhaps as a whole they may be one notch towards the thinner side of the spectrum than Americans, but when you look at individuals you will see people of all body types and sizes. And there is a growing obesity problem in France. So with that said,...

Where they edge us out is in the ability not to snack and not to pig out. Systemically, this is supported by teensy packaging sizes. Soda is sold in 1-liter bottles and poured into plastic cups of maybe 4 oz at biggest for parties; I've never seen a 2-liter bottle in France. It's a pain to get up and refill your your cup a jillion times, so you end up drinking less soda. "Family size" doesn't exist. Bags of chips are not bigger than your head, and cookie packets have 12 cookies, not 60.

Now couple that with a generous amount of self-control. My French husband and I joke about how he's capable of taking just a few bites of dessert. "I'm French, I don't need any more than that." Whereas I will eat the whole tablet of chocolate in one sitting, he can eat one or two squares and put it away for another day.

As for your other questions, many working families rely on quick-to-make soups for dinner: cook veggies in broth, puree, add a splash of cream if you wish. Serve with some bread. Pretty healthy and easy to make. Many French women work (I believe they have one of the highest rates of women in the workforce in Europe) and scramble to get dinner on the table. I have to admit that in my experience, fewer French men step up in household tasks than what I've observed in the US, so French women really get the shaft in that respect. Part-time work is common for dual-income households, and the law allows for you to take comp time in response for overtime.

Students can eat campus cafeteria meals for a very low price (5 euros total?), and so they can eat a healthy square meal for lunch and then have a light dinner.

So in sum: systemic support and major self-control. And that is changing.
posted by Liesl at 1:42 PM on July 12, 2016 [11 favorites]

Best answer: In the 70s, I was an exchange student for a summer with a quirky, down-on-their-luck family in the south-east of France, between Cognac and the seashore. It was kind of a rural area. The son worked in a vineyard, but the father was a chemist. I'm sure you will get more up-to-date answers but here is my experience.

First, eating out was absolutely unheard of. Super major special occasions only, I'm sure. At most an afternoon patisserie on an excursion into a nearby big town, or a menthe a l'eau at a local cafe. Picnics and dinners with friends were more common.

My family happened to grow a lot of their own food, including animals - they had rabbits, doves, that we ate. I also noticed that we ate much more efficiently - leftovers were rare and most amazingly to me, there was almost no garbage - I guess since scraps were probably used as compost or fed to the animals. We ate three meals a day, no snacking. If we were going to be out, we brought our own food. The father, as a side hobby, was the photographer for traveling horse races around the area, so when we went to a race we brought our own food and maybe had an ice cream as a special treat. The mother did not work and did all the cooking. They bought baguettes (the long bread loaf) every morning to eat with all meals. We drank wine at lunch and dinner. Before dinner we would have an aperitif (mine was cassis).

I wouldn't say they went out of their way to eat healthy, it's just that there was a lot of very fresh food, homemade, and almost no 'processed' food, because they just didn't feel they could afford that.

So this was a very old-fashioned family (as they themselves would have acknowledged) in a rural area in the 70s.
posted by maggiemaggie at 1:44 PM on July 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh and I wanted to add, dessert was always fresh fruit, followed by cheese.
posted by maggiemaggie at 1:50 PM on July 12, 2016

Response by poster: I realize as I'm reading these responses that I have another question-- how are these meals/courses served at home? All on the table at once? (I'm guessing no.) Does the cook (usually female) bring them out one by one, including aperitifs and cheeses and dessert? Are aperitifs taken away from the dining area? So many questions I have about how this all actually plays out... I find it hard to coordinate even 2 courses for a small meal for my boyfriend and I. :)
posted by stoneandstar at 2:10 PM on July 12, 2016

Best answer: Yes, each course was brought out and eaten individually - so that was a little odd for me, ie, salad was eaten as its own course (salad being just some lettuce leaves with dressing), but you could focus on one thing at a time. Mostly the mother brought out the courses, but the son and daughter helped (rarely the father). The daughter usually handled getting everyone their aperitif.

Most of these dishes were very simple.

On the day we ate some of the doves, they were brought out by the son on a big platter with the heads still on and everyone just admired them for a bit before serving themselves.

The fruit, cheese, bread and aperitifs sat on a sideboard in the dining room at all times (no refrigeration), so they were just there. Whoever just moved them over to the dining table and we helped ourselves.

This family was *very* traditional. Some of this survives to some degree, but modern people mostly don't have the time, and maybe just don't eat as many courses.
posted by maggiemaggie at 2:29 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A typical main American meal is meat and two veg, or one veg and one starch, all on the table at once. If there's a dessert, it comes afterwards.

A typical full French meal is a small vegetable- or seafood-based dish. Next comes the meat and a side. Next comes a green salad. Next comes cheese. Next comes dessert, which may be a sweet dessert or may be fruit or yogurt. Courses may be collapsed into each other if someone gets antsy or someone (me!!) takes too long with the cheese platter. Wine and water with each course, sometimes changing wines if appropriate.

Modern families won't necessarily do the whole rigmarole every day, but you will definitely see some version of this for Sunday midday and at holidays.
posted by Liesl at 3:03 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I forgot to say that portion sizes take into account the fact that you'll be eating so many courses. Once the main dish was four shrimp and a spoonful of julienned squash, but by the time the meal ended I was just as full as I needed to be.
posted by Liesl at 3:05 PM on July 12, 2016

More than the food itself, French eating has a big psychological component to it that we don't necessarily have in the States. Rather than say "OMG, I'm so full!" French eating is more likely to say "I am no longer hungry."
posted by floweredfish at 5:58 PM on July 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that surprised me eating with French families (coming from the UK myself) was that the meal was mostly prepared and cooked in real time as it was eaten. Thus the evening meal could often take two or three hours. I guess that this habit not only encourages conversation and reasonable manners, but also explains why you often see very young children in French restaurants who are capable of sitting quietly through a long dinner. It's all a matter of expectation amongst the adults. It is not only eye-opening, it's extremely pleasant.
posted by tillsbury at 7:32 PM on July 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You mentioned having enough money to eat out for lunch often- this is because workplaces are required to offer a subsidized cafeteria or vouchers that can be used at local restaurants. Since cafeterias only make sense for very large employers, many people use their restaurant vouchers for lunch. This is how they can afford to eat out for lunch most days.

I also would second that you can't assume that stuff that is expensive in the US is also expensive here. Farmers market veggies are really cheap, and you can find cheap pâté, Brie, etc. Hamburgers are expensive though!

That said, I think you are right to suspect that there are variations in the food culture that are class dependent, but it is not just class. My husband comes from a working class family, but very traditional. So they are very much like the family maggiemaggie describes. But an immigrant family, for example, will likely have some different approaches. It's an intersection of money, time, and habits.
posted by ohio at 11:32 PM on July 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: French eating habits are extremely class dependent. Basically, the upper rungs of society eat well, whilst the poorer the families, the more likely they are to be eating junk / processed food. I've read somewhere that France is McDonald's second largest market after the US, so that should tell you something.

Watch the film Life is a quiet long river, which gives you good insight into how two families (one upper middle class and one working class) live and eat. Or any film by Claude Chabrol.
posted by Kwadeng at 12:14 AM on July 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: There's a lot answered in this recent question. I'll probably be repeating a lot of what I wrote in my answer there though the context of your question is more general.

Re: lunch, yes, we generally have money for it because it's required by law when you're an employee. We get tickets restaurant, which are partially (mostly) funded by employers, and we fund the rest, which is usually somewhere between 2-4 euros. You can use them in almost any restaurant – exceptions are quite rare – and also in supermarkets. The great thing with tickets restaurant is that because they're so ubiquitous, and the amount only varies by a euro or two, restaurants design meal prices around them. So you can almost always find a lunch menu that will be covered by your ticket.

As for eating habits compared to Americans (being American originally myself), I've always thought the comparison very classist, regionalist (*waves at large American cities*), and marketing-oriented. I grew up in Oregon eating fresh produce, bread from local bakeries, getting poultry and beef from local ranchers, the occasional hunted venison and rabbit... and the vast majority of my Oregon friends still eat that way. I also have friends in Texas, California, and Washington who eat like that, so, what are "American" eating habits? Or rather: what are the American eating habits popularized in the press? And why is it so important for the media to focus on how white Frenchwomen eat and why, notably, on young, thin, straight white Frenchwomen? It's so racist, classist, diversity-blind, and gender policing it's infuriating. I have been writing this on the internet for twenty years now and keep hoping someday I'll no longer need to. I digress. I eat nearly the same way in France as I did in Oregon, the key difference being that rather than eating just Tillamook cheddar and imported brie, I can find several hundred varieties of cheese, but no Tillamook. Dammit I miss my Tillamook cheddar. (No, I do not want English cheddar, it's not the same, I want my Tillamook. Yes I love French cheese, I'm just being crabby.)

As for how meals are cooked, honestly the same thing is happening here that happened in our Gen X generation in the US: it went from long, relaxed meals to things families can whip up quickly. Relaxed meals are now done on weekends or special occasions (this includes having over visitors, so again, beware anecdata, like any good host they put on a show). I know upper-class, well-paid families who buy Picard frozen meals and heat them up in a wok or a microwave. I know poor families who go to market a few times a week and cook up stock, rice, and whip up stir-fries in the evenings. None of them are exceptions; there's no single rule here. And if I were to get quite pointed about how much racism quietly infuses the narrative of "French food" and skews people's perceptions, I would note that not a single person here has mentioned how French families cook tajine, couscous, felafel, kebab... It's not a digression, it is a widespread reality. People cook and eat these regularly, no matter their cultural origins. Likewise, not every white French person likes cheese. I have several friends who can't stand the stuff. There is also a consequential amount of people who don't like to eat bread. They'll force themselves and not say anything when in front of non-French visitors, but there's been a backlash against bread here amongst dieters (the Atkins diet had a lot to do with it).

I will say portions are different, but this is not restricted to meals. I went ten years between trips back to the States and it hurt my eyes to see the huge cars there, plus I was wigging out at having a bedroom the size of my two-room apartment. People tend to think more modestly about all things in Europe, food included; it's not particular to France.

Also beware of secondhand anecdata because the French looooove to paint themselves as more casually chic then they really are. Like the first anecdata about pâté being normal. It's not, a lot of people can't stand it. As an American in France it only took me about a year to realize the chasm between the claims of "I eat pâté, fresh-baked bread, and drink a glass of local wine every day!" and seeing their hamburgers and fries with a can of Coke at lunch in reality, and their microwaved dinners at home. Plus I actually know about wine and pâté, so it wasn't too hard to string them along with wide-eyed naïve smiles and nods and then ask them which wine and what type of pâté only to confirm they'd been BSing. There are those who don't BS, but seriously, this whole media infatuation with romanticizing white French attitudes has fed into French nationalist ideas that then express themselves through food and just, ugh. Dear media: please stop feeding the French nationalism, we don't need any more of it here than already exists. I don't eat pâté. I can find it, yes, and it's very good, but meh. I go to a Food Assembly (La Ruche Qui Dit Oui in French) here that offers a gazillion varieties of pâté and have never seen anyone get any in the four months I've been going every week. Lots of vegetables, sausage, and free-range chicken though.

I do agree that systemic support is a huge reason for good portion control and well-scheduled meals. And this is where another one of my bugbears about mediatized "French eating" comes in. It always comes across as an implicit "lazy Americans, disciplined French" sort of thing. When the actual reason is that in the States, we basically no longer have unions, our work protections are godawful, and schedules are, like, "what's a work schedule?" because who can actually work just 40 hours a week and get by? Then there's the nightmare of parental leave and childcare. Whereas in France, 40-hour-workweeks are the norm, the VAST majority of offices are on a 9-to-5 or 9-6 (if you take a long lunch) schedule, few people work weekends, government aid is widespread for childcare, etc. and so forth. This makes it possible to systematize good eating habits. Breakfast is before you get to work around 9, so most people eat between 7-8am, and that's when breakfast cafés are open. Lunch is between 12-2pm, and that's when places that serve lunch are open. Dinner is anywhere from 7-9pm, and that's when dinner places are open.

Re: your more specific questions:
1) Yes, working parents are more and more the norm. This has a lot to do with the recession and wage freezes here. Practically no one in the middle class got a raise between 2008-2015. This year things are finally starting to thaw, but only on the upper ends for now. As a result there are a lot more parents working, and yes, meals tend to be thrown together more often. Picard (a French frozen foods chain) is quite popular for this.

2) Grad school is an entirely different can of worms in Europe than in the States. First off, it's very, very cheap. I paid a grand total of ~400 euros for my Masters degree from a French university. Second, as undergrad is even cheaper, most kids go straight from undergrad into grad school without an issue. They'll eat at home (France isn't that big of a country) or at a university cafeteria, which has subsidized meals. Again, this is not specific to France.

3) Not just class. Cultural background as well. I seriously want this media infatuation that defines "French" as "white" to burn in a fire as of yesterday. It is a damn shame that more isn't said about how diverse populations eat here, because it is indeed eye-opening and you realize that France is a lot more integrated than scaremongerers like to say. Kosher and halal places are relatively easy to find (though it does depend on location!!). I used to shop in a kosher supermarket in Nice. We also had a Russian supermarket with everything written in Russian. Classes don't necessarily go along immigration-related lines, which would be fascinating for someone with the time to do proper research to look into. And with wider support for agricultural entrepreneurs, fresh produce is cheap and widespread, so the less well-off don't necessarily eat badly. This would be a doctoral thesis to answer properly though.
posted by fraula at 2:04 AM on July 13, 2016 [59 favorites]

"How to eat like French family?" by Boston Globe.
posted by zeikka at 4:03 AM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I should maybe add: I don't mean that I see my French friends eating those foods every day. One of my best friends in French and she's a vegetarian who lives on salad, falafel, ratatouille, and tea. Nevertheless, when I told her that I've always thought pâté was a fancy-party sort of food, she thought that was amusing.

If you're interested in history at all, you should look up the book Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870 -1914 by Eugene Weber. If you don't have time to look it up, it's got a chapter about food and the basic argument is: what the world currently thinks of as French cuisine is actually Parisian cuisine that was deliberately spread and cultivated throughout the country at the end of the 19th century, along with the Napoleonic metric system, roads, and the French language (before the 19th century, everyone just spoke their local dialects). Before all of that happened, people in the poorer parts of southern France ate meat very rarely, didn't drink wine, and they didn't eat white bread or pastries. Things people did eat: chestnuts (sometimes ground to make flour); potatoes; milk; dark brown rye bread; and lots of soup soup made with lard alone or with turnips, corn, millet, buckwheat, chestnuts or potatoes.
posted by colfax at 6:47 AM on July 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've spent a lot of time in France and people just eat less really. Also not all French people are thin but there is a very common body type there is being extremely petite. Think Vanessa watshernane, Johnny depps ex, a lot of my French and Italian family just have that body type: medium height and very small framed.

While McDonalds are everywhere in France the food is much better! I think by law the burgers have yo be all beef, chicken is breast meat etc and the bread is different too, plus eu flour which is different strains, much stricter about things like herbicides and chemicals used in processing. Lots of my family that go back and forth can only eat wheat products in Europe and not in the US or they get an upset stomach.
posted by fshgrl at 12:10 PM on July 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I also know that the French tend to have more time in their day due to a more limited work week.

This is not my experience... I'm British but have both lived in the US and visited France extensively on business. But purely anecdotally and possibly limited to one social/professional type of person :

In the office environments I work in in London, people tend to get in relatively early, rush lunch by eating it at their desk, and are out of the door at 5 or 6 pm.

In the office environments I've worked in in Paris, people tend to get in a little later (say 9:00 or a little after), take a full hour for lunch with colleagues, followed by a coffee break, but then tend to work later in the evening.

Out of hours work (weekend cover and so on) seems to be roughly the same. So my own experience is that the number of hours worked are roughly equivalent, but allocated differently. Shorter commute times in Paris as opposed to London may also have something to do with it.

The office environment I worked in in NY tended to follow the London pattern reasonably closely.

Eating at your desk in Paris is basically unheard of though, in my experience.
posted by plep at 9:19 AM on July 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

As Fraula points out, French restaurant meal times, are much more strictly laid out than any other country I have been to. The reason why Michelin made a side step, back in 1900, from making tyres to writing restaurant guides was that anybody driving through unknown region would have to find a restaurant within the 12-2pm window if they were going to get any lunch. This very much still applies and visitors who expect to grab a meal at 11am or 4pm - as they could in Spain, the UK and almost anywhere else - are going to be disappointed.

The same rigidity of scheduling applies to the opening of shops, offices and so on too - in other words those unions and those laws that govern time off for workers mean that customers must comply if they are to be fed/served/whatever. In many places children and workers will still head home for lunch, for example.

By contrast the admonishment to "ne pas grignoter entre les repas" appears on advertisements for snacks of any kind. If you snack then the state and the media turns its back on you and hopes your feel guilty!
posted by rongorongo at 2:17 AM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

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